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Young people, unions, strategies

Damian Oliver

One obvious site to politically engage young people is in the workplace. How does the labour market for young people affect their capacity to be politically engaged? Current union structures and strategies have not markedly increased membership among young workers. What can unions do to encourage more young workers to join and become active participants in the movement?

The essence of my argument tonight is this: young workers do engage with industrial debates, but many must do so without a satisfactory knowledge of the industrial relations system and any exposure to unions. If unions want young people to participate industrially and politically within unions, approaching them in their first full-time job is too late.

Most of what I say tonight is based on a survey I am in the middle of conducting. The research looks at young people and how their attitudes change as they move from studying at university to working full-time.

"What I found staggering was how quickly anti-union attitudes take hold."

My initial survey of undergraduate students in Brisbane showed that while students have quite favourable attitudes towards unions, only one in three wanted to join a union after graduation.

A large proportion of young people - about 20 per cent in my survey - expressed no opinions toward unions. This was not about their individual circumstances and union membership. One in five held no opinions on the role of trade unions in general. Many I suspect did not know what a trade union was.

Young workers lack the knowledge to make these judgments when they know so little about the IR system: another study showed that more than one in two young workers could not identify which award or agreement they were employed under.One in two young workers who thought they were employed on an ongoing or permanent basis did not receive any paid leave.

Another 30 per cent of the young workers in my study were neutral on the question of unions. They neither agreed nor disagreed with anti- or pro- union statements.

So in total, nearly 50 per cent of university students have no firm opinion either way toward unions. This is despite the fact that most of these students had been working for at least five years.

Students with firm views either way towards unions were not developing them through their experiences in the workplace. Discipline and parental experiences with unions were sources of significant variation in union sympathy.

Students with positive experiences of union membership, irrespective of what union they used to belong to or the occupation they intended to work in, were more likely to want to join a union after graduation.

I have only just begun to look at how these attitudes have changed, twelve months after graduation.

What I found staggering was how quickly anti-union attitudes take hold.

My estimate is that at most 60 per cent of young workers have maintained their attitudes toward unions. Their attitudes are stable. Of the remaining 40 per cent, nearly all (about 38 per cent) the change in attitude is negative.

This affects young workers across the board. That is, young workers who had no opinion twelve months ago now are more negative towards unions. But a quarter of young workers who had positive attitudes towards unions twelve months ago also now have more negative attitudes.

The proportions of this aren't the most important part of my result. My sample is heavy with business and engineering graduates, and light on with teaching and nursing graduates. So it is likely that my results are more pessimistic than reality.

But as the number of university graduates continues to increase, it is important that the union movement look to expand its representation of professional workers beyond teachers, nurses and public servants.

At least among university graduates, young workers are encountering a wall of anti-union sentiment as soon as they enter their workplaces.

So unions need to promote every opportunity to engage with young people, preferably before they start working full-time.

This is why trade union efforts on campus are important and worthwhile. Convincing students of the benefits of trade union membership is tough. That, I think, says more about the clash of short-term priorities between unions and student workers than any conflict of underlying values.

But student workers who do have positive experiences of union membership maintain positive attitudes towards unions, although this isn't always enough to convert this propensity to membership.

I cannot tell from my survey what it is that defines a 'positive' or a 'negative' experience of union membership for young workers. Perhaps this is something that unions themselves should look to follow up.

All I can say is that the union they belonged to made no difference to their likelihood of a positive or negative experience. Many unions were represented in the sample, and none stood out as particularly bad or particularly good.

Campus organising will never be an amazing source of union recruits. But this data has convinced me of its value. To put it another way, if the union movement seeks to leave it to chance, only one in ten graduates will come its way. It's a matter of shortening very long odds.

So in conclusion, I think the crucial question isn't so much what the union movement should be doing to encourage young people's industrial engagement, but when to do it.

Unions need to be talking to young people - and recognising their different priorities around work as legitimate - from long before they enter the workforce.

I acknowledge this is asking a lot: a co-ordinated approach, a spirit of co-operation among an unlikely coalition of unions, and a risky investment of time and resources. I don't suspect that entire generations are there to be won over, but if nothing is done, then whole generations will be lost.


Damian Oliver is a PhD student in the Department of Industrial Relations at Griffith University. His research explores young people's attitudes towards work, unions and management. This is the text of his address to the Evatt Sunset Seminar on "Young People & Politics", presented at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts on 6 September 2005.


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